There are a number of different ways that media centers and equipment counters run their operations. In this article, we look at how equipment checkout software works and why universities and colleges opt to use it.
Equipment checkout software supports a quick and largely automated way of managing loans of circulatory assets. It covers:
- Reservations – the agreed time, date and duration of each loan
- Issuing of items – essentially the checkout and check in process
- Tracking – who’s got what and when, both in real time and as a record
- Reporting – mainly for management information on asset usage
Systems are largely designed for portable resources, such as laptops, tablets, cameras, cables and other types of equipment and hardware. They may be equally suited to manage booking and use of labs, studios, study rooms and some fixed equipment.
Checkout software sometimes utilizes a barcode system and scanner, or it may be used with a NFC reader. Systems may have an Active Directory connection for user authentication upon login, and they may also check student details (e.g. year, classes) when issuing items. However, some systems may rely on self-registration of users in the system. Either way, the software will always link the loan of each equipment item to a specific user so that its location can always be traced back to an individual with an agreed return time and date.
How and why do media centers use these systems?
Here are some of the main reasons for using equipment checkout software:
- Speed – faster checkout turnaround on the desk, minimizing repetitive manual tasks
- Accuracy – knowledge of each item’s location
- Accountability – the system holds each individual responsible for what they borrow, with a usage history of each item by user
Now let’s look at how these systems work...
The checkout system is published online, often from a relevant departmental webpage, with each student and staff user having a personal login to the system. The system lists all inventory that the individual is authorized to borrow, together with the times that each item is available. When the user logs in, they select the item(s) required, and reserve them for the desired time within the automated access rules. When the time comes, they would go to the counter to pick up the item. This is a ‘web self-service reservation’.
The checkout process should be fast, and especially rapid if using a barcode system. Counter staff scan the student’s ID card to retrieve any reservation information in the system. The staff member then scans the reserved item of equipment and effectively issues it to the student. There’s no need for paperwork – the loan record is created and the student’s use of the system has already required acceptance of borrowing terms and conditions.
Above (left to right): Equipment checkout operations supported by connect2 software at Cal Poly, Coventry University and Sheffield Hallam University.
Alternatively, students without an advance reservation would first visit the counter, and request a staff member to checkout an item using the system. The checkout process simultaneously makes the reservation in the system for an agreed amount of time. This is an ‘instant checkout’ reservation and processes the loan in the same way but without the advance booking.
Automated communications (e.g. via email) serve as a record of the loan to the user; they will also be sent reminders to return the items promptly. At the return time, the student hands the equipment to the counter staff, who scans the items and returns them to the shelf. The system ends the reservation, freeing up the item for the next checkout or reservation.
If the software has an inbuilt penalty system, fines can be applied for late returns or users suspended from borrowing further equipment until an item is returned or a fine is paid.
How do students rate using this software?
While institutions invest in equipment checkout software primarily for operational efficiencies, these systems also have substantial advantages for students. The software tends to have fast adoption, as users quickly notice its benefits.
By using the software to book ahead online, students have peace of mind the required items will be available when needed. They can avoid wasted trips to the equipment store and are less likely to miss assignment deadlines. Renewals and cancellations can also be achieved online so it's easier to avoid penalties around equipment borrowing.
With these advantages, students quickly accept the need to reserve equipment in advance using the software. They also become better informed about the range of resources available to them when they can browse and learn about them in an online catalog. So they're better informed and capable of producing better work too. In summary, students embrace a new way of accessing and using resources with equipment checkout software and rate using it highly.
The power of centralized data
Equipment checkout software reliably accumulates a history of usage data for the items managed. The inventory and usage data is all there in one place, so also supports equipment audits and the management of maintenance schedules. It can also provide key analytics to steer future purchasing and investments in equipment.
Institutions using equipment checkout software can coordinate lending activity more smoothly between shift workers, as all equipment loans and maintenance activity is tracked in a single backed-up system. There's no loss of information as one team member's shift ends and another begins.
To sum up, why is checkout software proving so popular?
Certainty: these systems provide instant information on each item’s location and return time, and give a reliable overview of all stock available within the media center; use of barcoding and authentication also prevents unauthorized users from blagging their way to borrowing items!
Professionalism: systems designed for academic media environments bring efficiencies that enable departments to capably manage any size of inventory or number of students
Loss reduction: integrated penalty and communication systems help reduce equipment losses
Fairness: reservation limitations ensure there’s enough equipment to go round; plus items can be secured by those who are prepared to plan ahead using the online reservation functionality
Planning: all future reservations should be easily viewable in the system; plus usage reporting can support new purchases and help manage equipment life-cycles. The complete and up-to-date online inventory record may also support other activities, such as stock taking or fault management
Online self-service: checkout software published online enables users to browse and reserve items without the need to consult directly with staff, and so minimizing in-person interactions - a desirable outcome in the Covid-era
What are the substitutes for a checkout system?
Paper-based systems or spreadsheets – these might not require an upfront cost but are high on administration and repetitive tasks. Using systems that require manual intervention make it hard to pinpoint an individual asset’s location or work out which items are late back or lost. They tend to run a high risk of reservation clashes.
Also, students only know what’s available when they turn up at the store, so risking wasted trips. Lines can often form as staff work out what items are available, prepare kits etc. As these systems don’t offer users a view of the range of equipment available, many items risk being under-utilized.
ILS systems – are not designed to handle the metadata relating to equipment assets, such as the ability to include photos of the items, links to supporting information (e.g. user manuals), and the management of collections or kits. It will also lack the granularity of student access controls required for an extensive portfolio of specialized equipment. A dedicated media asset system manages and automates borrowing rules based on a user’s individual profile – such as their course or module and year of study, or if relevant training or an induction has been completed. Without this, the system risks more equipment losses and breakages.
Fixed asset management systems– are normally geared to an asset’s lifecycle, dealing with the design, construction, commissioning, operation, maintenance, repair, modification, replacement and decommissioning/disposal of physical assets. They are not suited to dealing easily with circulatory assets that need constant location tracking and access control for students
Use of the above alternatives will involve doing without some of the specialized functionalities needed to run an efficient operation. Ask yourself if a substitute system would be able to support prompt equipment returns, allow online reservations, avoid inefficient use of staff time, prevent booking clashes or control resource access to the required degree to ensure fairness and usage optimization.
Other areas to consider when choosing a checkout system…
- Make sure your supplier works with your preferred authentication process for single sign-on (e.g. LDAP, Shibboleth, SAML, CAS etc) to ensure that the automated authorizations and web self-service reservations work without a hitch.
- How intuitive is the system? The system will have a greater impact if you ask students to create their own reservations in advance, so it helps if it is attractive and easy to use! Some institutions report getting self-service reservations up to as many as 90% of all loans.
- Consider how you’re going to get your inventory in the system – does the system have the tools to achieve this and to keep it updated?
- Will you want the system to be hosted or on premise? Check that your supplier can meet your ICT requirements in this respect.
An experienced software supplier with a track record of working in higher education should be able to advise you on all these aspects.
Putting a checkout/in system together
Connect2 supports fast checkout of equipment keeping queues to a minimum. It’s compatible with barcoding and NFC systems, so students and their bookings are instantly identified on the system. A reliable audit is available of all equipment loans, eliminating the need for any paper records.
Time pads can be applied between bookings to support staff in kit turnaround, also allowing time for cleaning or quarantine. If items are returned late, users can be fined or suspended from the system automatically, encouraging prompt equipment returns. Risk assessments can be built into the booking workflow to keep processes streamlined. The system also provides reliable data for management reporting, including usage data for assessing stock performance and to support decision-making for new purchases.
The above offers a very brief overview of how connect2 addresses the various aspects and uses of a checkout/in system. To find out more, please contact us to request a no-obligation personalized demo.